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10/2 & Innovations for Internationalized Domain Names

According to the 10/10 rule, it takes about a decade to take a product from initial idea to having a standard developed, and then another decade to reach mass market adoption. How can that second decade be reduced in the case of Internationalized Domain Names and their adoption by Internet users? The most effective way to speed up IDN mainstream adoption is learning from history. This includes avoiding mistakes of the past as well as creating an environment where innovative solutions can be created that will enhance the IDN adoption rate.

The 10/10 rule is discussed in Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From.” The author presents various technological developments throughout history that fall under the 10/10 rule, such as color television, HD television, VCRs, and others.

There are many other examples of the 10/10 rule. On my last trip, I was flying on the Airbus-A380, the largest and most silent airline passenger plane that exists today. It took about a decade to develop. The main structural sections were from France, Germany, Spain and United Kingdom, causing some level delays since they had to be transported to one central location for assembly. Although the plane is in commercial service, it is yet to be seen if it takes another decade for the plane to become mainstream.

It is amazing to realize that it only took the same amount of time to build a stable version of the IDNA protocol as it took to build the A380 plane. Work towards the IDNA protocol began just over a decade ago and only recently has its second version been released. This second version will for example function for any future versions of Unicode, making it a much more stable protocol than previously. Meanwhile the protocol development we also saw the implementation and launch of the processes by which IDNs can be introduced at the top-level of domain names. The overall development of IDNs was a truly diverse, multi-national effort, with the precise number of participating countries difficult to assess. The biggest challenge now for IDNs is how to avoid waiting another decade for achieving widespread adoption by Internet users and application developers.

Many services or products have broken the 10/10 rule.  What they have in common is that they are considered innovative. One example is YouTube. It took YouTube only 2 years to become one of the top ten visited sites in the world and the most visited video site ever. Today, Youtube powers more than 3 billion videos views a day. YouTube’s disruptive innovation was to take advantage of the Internet and thereby its ability to create a different way to access and consume videos, and that in an era of early Internet consumers.

Another example is Facebook’s strategy to become the social networking leader by leveraging the trusted and verified .EDU top-level domain. Facebook facilitated membership through the restricted .EDU extension to create an exclusive membership club of verified students. Facebook soon became the largest social network in the world by surpassing Myspace, the previous market leader. Just like Youtube, the adoption rate for Facebook was less than a decade. Facebook was another innovative service.

So what can we do to take IDNs to mass-market? Granted, IDNs have been available at the second level of domain names for about a decade, with some of the early implementations starting in 2000. While most of the very early implementations have been used primarily for testing purposes, the standard second-level implementation was quickly adopted by for example European based TLD registries, but the most significant milestone was achieved in 2010 with the launch of ICANN’s IDN ccTLD Fast Track Program. Under the new program, the entire domain name could be expressed in Chinese, Indian, Russian, and other languages. While the technology is essentially the same, IDNs expressed in languages not using the Latin alphabet is a bigger differentiator than “simply” adding IDNs at the second level under existing TLDs based on the basic Latin script [e.g. blåbær.tld]. The opportunities and implications for regions that do not use the Latin alphabet as their primary language script will be game-changing.

As experience shows, in order to break the 10/10 rule, we need innovative services complementing a product in order for it to reach mass market in less than the typical decade. The question remains: Are IDNs innovative enough on their own or do they require complementors to push the adoption cycle in to the mainstream? I believe the answer is two-fold, although related. We need add-on innovative services making IDNs useful, and that we need to create incentives for the market to pick them up.

Creating effective incentives that serve the Internet’s public interest and opening up IDNs for innovative ideas can be done in several different ways.

One way is by widespread usage by key players that drive the industry. If we give existing TLD registries easy access to internationalized versions of their TLDs, then the deployment of these Internationalized TLDs could reach big markets quickly. This will not only speed up mainstream adoption, but it will also make IDNs more compatible by pushing more application developers to support IDNs, which in turn creates a better user experience and usability.

Some of the existing TLD registries have announced they will apply for and launch internationalized versions of their TLDs. However, not all will since the incentive may not be desirable enough given the high costs involved and the first-mover risk of being an early innovator in an immature market. Recall that use of IDNs is largely up to application developers, and for example email is only in its very early stages of roll-out. Offering customers a domain product that cannot be used broadly or generally in applications can be a challenge.

I previously proposed that bundling prices be introduced for gTLD applications containing internationalized versions of the applied for TLD string. There has been some concerns expressed associated with this type of lowering the barrier for companies. Most concerns express that this would create additional competitive advantages for already prominent industry players. However, in order to get new products into an existing market it is often common practice to offer lower prices initially. You could argue that while the Fast Track Process for IDN ccTLDs was cost-neutral, it was effective since it helped introduce new products at a low price, and that for internationalized versions of already existing TLDs (ccTLDs in this case). There is no reason why the internationalized gTLDs could not be introduced in similar fashion and thereby be able to compete with IDN ccTLDs.

Since there is limited competition and innovations in the IDN space, it would be beneficial to allow all Internationalized TLD applicants to be incentivized by lower prices if their strategy is aligned with that offering to Internet users. By allowing this, app and software developers will be quicker to embrace IDNs and will help improve IDN usability on a global scale. That kind of development will be positive for all Internet users and players involved. It will help lower the prices and barrier of entry for other companies or organizations interested in competing in the space and provide new IDN solutions to Internet users. In addition, it would create a safer introduction, by bundling and connecting the various internationalized TLD contracts with ICANN.

More benefits to Internet users would materialize in the IDN space as new innovative products and services are incorporated by industry players and entrepreneurial technology companies. For example, Internet usage in Asia, despite having gone through a 700% increase in the last decade, is still only at a penetration of about 10% of the general population, which means there is huge growth potential in this region. But is the growth opportunity enough to convince an applicant to go for the Internationalized (or localized rather) version of a TLD?

Interestingly, Asia is also one region where the high costs create an unnecessary barrier to IDN innovators. Considering that internationalized TLDs comes with high development and infrastructure costs, extensive first-mover marketing campaigns and a high probability of ongoing changes, bundled with the ICANN fee of 185.000US$ the financial risks are still too high. First movers have a high risk of failing under these circumstances since the market is in early adopter mode and not a mature and profitable market with users paying high or equitable fee’s to existing and more established domain name products. Multiple applicants have told me they would include internationalized version of TLDs they are intending to apply for, if the price was lower. Many are awaiting the specifics of the ICANN program for allowing lower application prices for certain applicants. 

As a result, and unfortunately, there have not been many public announcements about intentions of TLD applicants to launch IDNs. Most announcements have been made by major players, such as Verisign, to apply for their IDN equivalent in .COM. If ICANN’s goal with the new TLD program is to increase competition, consumer choice and innovation, more has to be done to incentivize the launch of IDNs to serve under-represented communities.

That brings me to an interesting subject on the topic of innovation and where the IDN innovation will come from. Are we still waiting for technology to catch up, or is it already here and we need to catch up with it? I recently asked a group from DIT, CDAC, NIXI, and Afilias India, in India, and another group, comprised primarily by Western-participants in the IDN session at the Dot-Nxt Conference on new TLDs in San Francisco. The findings were exceptional:

India: 50% feels like they wait for technology // 50 % feel like they have to catch up with technology.

Dot-Nxt: 10% feels like they wait for technology // 90 % feel like they have to catch up with technology.

The differences in the findings are interesting. Especially considering that the individuals asked are all from the same industry and involved in the same technology.

In less than 24 hours after the question was asked, one of the leaders of the team in India brought a timeline for new products focused on the usability of IDNs, nailing the 10/2. They also demonstrated newly developed tools helping users managing IDNs. These tools were exceptionally outstanding and could be very useful in regions outside India.

This exemplifies that we are witnessing a region where the people are ready for the next step in Internet development, and I believe this is where the expansion, and change of the namespace, will come from. Considering that the Internet has provided many benefits for us over the last decade, we have a responsibility to continue allow and encourage the ongoing development in an open and transparent manner. We simply need to make sure that next step of Internet evolution is available and more easily accessible by every Internet user.

I hope this post will help initiate the discussion on the topics related to innovations, prices, and other ways of making the internationalized TLD introduction and competition fair, and making the access equal. I also hope it will give a market perspective for those involved in the ICANN program focused on application fee reduction for certain applicants.

By Tina Dam, Co-Founder MYTLD

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